From the beginning of civilizations, Indians have pursued their eternal search for God. Vedic recitations, mantras, invocations, hymns and songs were used in the praise of benevolent Providence and nature. However – words – written or oral - were not enough to pacify the gods for long. He now wanted something more concrete, more visible, more credible and more beautiful. Thus began man’s rendezvous with the ‘image’ in stone, clay or wood. These images were the shapes of human desire, articulation of human imagination. It gave a definite structure to his craving for religious upliftment. It was also the origin of the inspired art of Maithili or Madhubani painting. Madhubani paintings are not just pretty drawings, but a lot more. They are expressions of folk legends, which the devout, simple villagers turn to pray, in their daily rituals.
Maithili painting has derived its name from the detached little hamlets of Bihar, comprising of the districts of Champaran, Saharsa, Muzaffarpur, Vaishali, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Samastipur, parts of Monghyr, Beguserai, Bhagalpur and Purnea, known as the Maithili region. In these non-descript villages, the art of Maithili painting is the common man’s way of attaining god – guided by his sense of aesthetic beauty. The origin of Madhubani paintings can be traced back to the tradition of painting walls for the purpose of domestic beautification and ceremonial rituals. This folk art is believed to have survived from epic periods. Tulsidas (an ancient Indian poet) has given a vivid account of Mithila decorated for the marriage of Sita with Ram (Indian Mythological figures). Natural and mythological figures, added with deities of the Hindu pantheon, besides regional flora and fauna were painted on household and village walls to mark the seasonal festivals of the religious year and for special events of the life cycle, especially the rite of marriage. 'Januar', 'Gosain Ghar', 'Chhat', 'Chauth Chand', and 'Devathan Ekadasi' were some of the festivals integrally linked to this ethnic art form. For the first three occasions the walls were embellished with paintings of gods and goddesses. And for the latter two occasions mural paintings were done in the 'khobar' or the nuptial room at the bride's house.
There was predominant use of gods and goddesses and auspicious symbols in the bridal chamber. It was considered necessary to include all the main gods and goddesses in the paintings so that they can shower their blessings on the newly weds. Divine couples like Shiva and Parvati, Vishnu and Lakshmi, Ram and Sita, Radha and Krishna along with Jagannatha trio, Ganesha, Durga and Kali were illustrated on the walls. Often, the bride and groom were also depicted whereby they could also become a part of the auspicious scene.
The symbols like ring of lotuses ( kamalban or purain) and bamboo (bans) tree were commonly used to decorate the walls. It is interesting to note that both the symbols are associated with the fertility and progeny. The other symbols included, moon, a source of heavenly nectar, to ensue a long life, sun to fertilize and impregnate, turtles to bring beneficent powers to the matrimonial alliance, parrots to symbolize bride and bridegroom and fishes to help in fertility. Besides these, four joganis or servants of Durga are also illustrated in each corner of the room to prevent anyone from casting negative spell on the bride and bridegroom.
The strong desire of union with the Gods finds expression through the images of Maithili paintings that transport one into the elevated state. These images are based on scriptures and epics, Vedas, Puranas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These images are also there in the universe – in the sun and the moon, the stars and the planets. They are dispersed in nature – in the plants and trees, in birds, fish and animals. The whole of human existence found expression in the art of Maithili paintings.
Madhubani painting was executed on smooth mud walls plastered with cow dung. Often, a coat of whitewash was also applied before actually starting the process of the painting. Traditionally natural colors obtained from plant extracts (Henna leaves, Bougainvillea, Neem) were used as the medium. Natural juices obtained from plants were mixed with resin from banana leaves and ordinary gum in order to make the paint stick to the painting medium. Presently, synthetic colors are also used. However, black continues to be obtained from the soot deposits by the flame of diyas (earthen oil lamps), dissolved in gum. The colors used are usually deep red, green, blue, black, light yellow, pink and lemon. Colors, in Maithili Painting, along with having a decorative role, also play an important symbolic part. For instance, energy and passion are expressed through the use of red and yellow, as monochrome crashed over large surfaces of the painting. Concentration of energy and the binding force is best reflected in red while green governs the natural leaves and vegetation. Two kinds of brushes are used - one for the tiny details made out of bamboo twigs and the other for filling in the space which is prepared from a small piece of cloth attached to a twig.
Even though Madhubani painting has been practiced for centuries, it has become an internationally acknowledged and commercially viable art form only during the last few decades. A major ecological and economic crisis engendered by the prolonged draught of 1966-1968 that struck Madhubani and the surrounding Mithila region, made the craft of Maithili paintings cross its domestic threshold and step into the larger world outside. In order to generate a new source of non-agricultural income, the women were encouraged to produce their traditional painting on hand made paper for commercial purposes. Since then the traditional art of Maithili painting has become the source of sustenance for scores of families in the region.